INTERVIEW – The Crisis in the Sahel: An End to Algeria’s Strategic Ambivalence?

By Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Updated: 02/04/2013

Laurence Aida Ammour UgandaThe hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria illustrates the transnational nature of the security threats posed by militant Islamist groups in the Sahel and underscores the importance of increased regional security cooperation, according to Laurence Aida Ammour, Research Fellow Associate at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs (CIDOB) and at the Bordeaux Institute for Political Science. Ms. Ammour, who served as facilitator and guest speaker at a recent ACSS Workshop on Improving Regional Responses to Transnational and Irregular Threats in Eastern Africa, is author of an Africa Security Brief titled, “Regional Security Cooperation in the Maghreb and Sahel: Algeria’s Pivotal Ambivalence,” published in February 2012 by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS). In a January 23, 2013, interview with ACSS, she commented on the unfolding situation. Her comments reflect her own professional opinions, not those of the Africa Center.

Initially, members of the “Masked Brigade” or “Signers in Blood”—the militant Islamist group that undertook the attack—claimed it launched the January 2013 assault in retaliation for events in nearby Mali, where French military force intervened to stem the southern advance of Al Qaeda-linked militants. “The operation was in response to the blatant interference by Algeria and the opening of its air space to French aircraft to bomb northern Mali,” a spokesperson for the militant group told Mauritania’s ANI news agency, according to a January 16 report by Reuters.

Others doubt the attack was a direct retaliation, insisting that the sophistication of the assault suggests that it had been planned long in advance. “That is a convenient excuse,” U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters on January 17. “But usually operations like [hostage seizure in Algeria] take longer to plan than during the last week’s event in Mali.”

“In this case it’s cold blooded murder of people going about their business,” he said. “So there is no excuse whether it’s connected to events in Libya, Mali or anywhere else.”

For Moktar Belmoktar, the Algerian-born veteran Jihadist with longstanding ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who formed the Masked Brigade, the choice to attack a high-profile Algerian facility was both strategic and symbolic Ms. Ammour, author of the ACSS security brief, said in a recent interview. Demoted after a series of clashes with senior AQIM leaders, Belkmoktar formed the Masked Brigade in late 2012, she said.

The attack on the In Amenas facility provided Belmoktar with an opportunity to demonstrate his terrorist group’s capacity to orchestrate a sophisticated, high-profile attack.

“For him, the attack is a way of showing to the other AQIM factions that he has the capabilities to provoke a very spectacular operation,” Ms. Ammoure said, “especially in a country that is supposed to be very secure.”

His Algerian roots may have been another motivation. “Algeria is a very symbolic country for him because he is Algerian,” she added.

For Algeria, the attack raises concerns about the efficacy of the government’s approach to combating militant Islamic groups within its territory. Many believe that Algeria has used the looming threat of terrorism within its borders to bolster its legitimacy both domestically and amongst the international community. The war on terror has also helped the Algerian government justify hard-line security policies and restrictions on civil liberties.

“There are many people in Algeria who think that terrorism is a kind of lever for the Algerian government to continue to keep its legitimacy in the eyes of foreign partners,” said Ms. Ammour.  “By keeping this low intensity of terrorism, the Algerian government can continue to justify very tough security policies toward its own people. When you are in an emergency situation, forget about democracy, civil liberties, and freedom of speech.”

Although the threat of terrorism has loomed large in Algeria for more than a decade, the scale of the attack in In Amenas and the target took many by surprise. “During almost a decade of civil war and the fight against the Islamists, all the gas and oil plants were very secure. They were the most secure places in Algeria,” said Ms. Ammour. “I’m surprised that this type of crucial strategic location was not secured by the Algerian military forces.”

But while the nature of the terrorist attack may have come as a surprise, the response the Algerian military was predictable and familiar. “The way the Algerian security forces were acting during the assault was reminiscent of the civil war,” noted Ms. Ammour. “At that time it was exactly the same doctrine: no negotiation and no talks with the Islamists.”

Given its size, comparative wealth, geostrategic location, and military strength, Algeria could play a central role in the fight against militant Islamic groups in the Maghreb and Sahel. However, Ms. Ammour said that mutual distrust between Algeria and its neighbors, as well as disagreements over the nature of the threat posed by militant Islamist groups, have severely undermined regional security cooperation in the Maghreb and Sahel.

Sahelian states have often complained that Algeria’s approach to insecurity in the region focuses too narrowly on the use of kinetic military force. “With military capabilities superior to those of the Sahelian states, Algeria considers its approach, born from the experience of fighting extremists during its brutal 1990s civil war, to take precedence,” Ms. Ammour wrote in the Africa Security Brief. “The Sahelian states, however, oppose Algeria’s one-dimensional military focus that neglects the economic, social, and political considerations that Sahelian countries see as intertwined with stability in the region,” she said in the report. “They reason that if the Algerian army has been unable to eliminate terrorism on its own soil over the past two decades using force alone, then why would such an approach work regionally?”

An inability to agree on a clear definition of the threat posed by militant Islamist groups constitutes another major challenge. “Despite its Algerian origins, Algerian authorities deny the existence of a connection between Algeria’s domestic terrorist groups and AQIM. Rather, they see AQIM as a new type of terrorist organization driven by its extremist ideology,” Ms. Ammour wrote in her February 2012 Africa Security Brief. “Sahelian states, in contrast, stress the criminal nature of the group, with its heavy engagement in drug and arms trafficking, as the most dangerous aspect of this regional threat.”

It remains unclear whether or not the assault on the In Amenas gas facility will prompt Algerian authorities to change their approach to security cooperation in the Sahel, according to Ms. Ammour. “Now everyone is asking, ‘what will Algeria do now?’”

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Laurence Aida Ammour’s opinions are based on her professional academic experience and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Instead, they are presented to contribute to public discussion on security in the Sahel region.

For more information on Algeria’s role in Regional Security Cooperation in the Maghreb and Sahel see Africa Security Brief No. 18.

The Africa Center continues to monitor events in the Sahel region. ACSS plans to host two panel discussions on the subject of “Priorities for Stabilizing Northern Mali” on Wednesday, February 6, 2013, from 8:30 a.m. to noon at National Defense University facilities in Washington, D.C. For more information please see invitation.

ACSS faculty and experts are available for comment about the crisis in Mali and instability in the Sahel. For more information please contact Michelle Cavalcanti at CavalcantiM@ndu.edu.